Narcissists Are Like Ambush Predators
Ambush predators capture or trap prey by stealth or by strategy. This is typically not conscious. In other words, it's not something that is planned and plotted and created, but something that is simply how the predator operates. A crocodile does not plan to look like a floating log, nor does he realize that he does. He is just doing what crocodiles do. This is important to remember, because for the majority of pathologically narcissistic people, it is the same. They are simply operating the way they know how. They are doing what works and what has always worked for them to get their needs met. The use of the word "predator" sometimes carries a negative connotation for people, and some may believe that this word implies malicious intention to cause harm, but a lion does not maliciously intend to harm or torture a zebra. They are not thinking of it that way. The zebra's well-being or feelings are not considered. The zebra's life and family are not taken into account. The zebra is assessed as far as how it can be used and that is all. It is not understood or considered as an individual or even as a living thing, merely as a food source.
Some may argue that humans are capable of malicious intent whereas animals are not, and perhaps this is so. However, in order to form malicious intent, the prey has to be considered as a separate individual capable of suffering and the suffering has to register with - and matter to - the predator. With some high-functioning antisocial personalities, this is undoubtedly the case, but with your garden-variety pathologically narcissistic person, it doesn't seem to be. They seem no more truly aware of the suffering of other humans than the lion is of the zebra's suffering - which is to say, not at all. What looks like purposeful, callous cruelty is often simply indifference, ignorance and total self-absorption. Don't know, don't care, don't notice 'cause it's not about me. People may assume that the behavior is malicious because they can't conceive of the fact that someone does not understand these things, or because they've told the person how hurt they are. And that makes complete sense, but it should be considered that just because someone is told something - even if they are told repeatedly - it doesn't mean they understand and it certainly does not mean they care.
It's important to make sure you are not projecting your own qualities onto others. Just because you would understand or care doesn't mean someone else is the same. Even if a narcissist is intellectually aware that someone is hurt or upset because they've been told or because they are seeing demonstration of emotion, there is no connection to anything inside them that causes this information to matter emotionally. This is also like the lion, who uses the zebra's expressed suffering only as evidence that it is not dead yet and therefore she must still hang on. And even after explaining all that, it is not even really the most important thing about this concept. Understanding that others are not considered as anything other than sources of fulfillment is what matters the most.
So why ambush predators? Well, rather than running food down with amazing speed or overtaking them by brute strength as other predators might, ambush predators use camouflage, aggressive mimicry, or a trap. Aggressive mimicry in particular is applicable here. Aggressive mimicry is where a predator or a parasite mimics a harmless animal in order to mislead their prey or the host they are feeding off of. This is the opposite of defensive mimicry, where prey animals mimic predators as a form of self-defense, such as when a butterfly's markings resemble the eyes of a predatory bird. If aggressive mimicry is comparable to a wolf in sheep's clothing, a defensive mimic is a sheep in wolf's clothing. Pathologically narcissistic people may employ either of these unconscious strategies at different times.
In aggressive mimicry, signals, camouflage, lures and other strategies are employed in order to create the illusion that the predator is harmless. The promise of sustenance or mating opportunities are often used. A predator using aggressive mimicry may disguise itself as a willing mate in order to lure prey close to it, or as a more harmless creature than it really is. Pathologically narcissistic people often use mimicry to appear as if they are something other than what they are in order to gain necessary relationships. Like all other living things that use mimicry, they do it in order to survive. Without the validation given to them by others through attention, they cannot sustain any self-worth. Human beings with no self-worth bottom out and suicide becomes a very real threat. Narcissistic people are in constant danger of bottoming out, so securing a supply of validation is very important. This is not necessarily anything they are doing intentionally, any more than any other living creature does. It's how they work. They have learned that the only way they can get their needs met is through mimicry and camouflage. Their behavior has adapted accordingly, and in most cases is not a deliberate act, any more than the crocodile is intending to look like a floating log. That doesn't mitigate the inherent danger here and it absolutely does not excuse any abusive behavior, but understanding the mechanics of the motivation helps people understand what they are dealing with so that they can make informed choices.
Narcissists understand the difference between right and wrong. They just don't think the behavior is wrong for them because hey, they have to survive. If you had to steal food to eat, would it matter to you that stealing was wrong? Probably not all that much, right? Not if you were literally starving. This is the situation that the pathologically narcissistic person finds themselves in, and whatever maladaptive coping mechanisms or behaviors they have grown into are all considered justified under the umbrella of survival. If it's substance abuse, if it's lying, if it's cheating, if it's gaslighting, if it's raging, if it's violence... doesn't matter. Many are in denial they are doing these things anyway, and if forced to acknowledge any of it, it will be dismissed as inconsequential when compared to the reason why they felt they had to do it.
This is one of the most confusing things about narcissism. The behavior looks aggressive to others, but it feels defensive to the narcissist. This results in very, very different narratives about what has transpired in any situation. With the exception of some high-functioning antisocial personalities, virtually all of the behavior of pathologically narcissistic people is reactionary and defensive. The problem is that many times they are actually reacting to their own feelings, rather than anything other people have actually done. Because they are either unwilling or unable to confront that fact, the result is what looks like - and frankly, what is - repeated vicious, unprovoked attacks against other people. This often helps to create the perception that the narcissist is deliberately cruel just for cruelty's sake. And some probably are.
However, it's important not to misunderstand what is actually going on here. It's one thing to believe that someone is being mean or cruel just because they want to, and that that is the sole motivation. That's horrible, but the danger of that belief is that it's also something a person might believe could possibly be changed if circumstances, feelings or situations were to change. We hear it all the time: "If I could just prove to the narcissist, if I can just show them, if I can make them see... they'll stop acting this way." But when someone is behaving this way because they view others as sources of sustenance and therefore believe their very survival depends on it, that is a very different situation. It changes the parameters of the discussion.
There will always be those who believe that pathologically narcissistic people are intentionally plotting to hurt and scheme and destroy others for fun. Some of them undoubtedly are. But in the end, it isn't even important. What matters is understanding that even at the very least, the best that can be hoped for is that the cruelty isn't intentional, because you just don't matter at all.
© 2018 The Little Shaman